In a recent article, Roger Olson contrasts his own “biblical” understanding of God as a personal being, albeit “the greatest of all beings, transcendently surpassing in greatness and glory all creatures,” with the traditional understanding of God as Being itself, infinite, unconditioned, absolute. The underlying assumption of the latter, he writes, “is that the biblical narrative does not give us an adequate, or any, metaphysical world picture, account of reality-itself, but expresses especially transcendent reality in myths, symbols and images which must be interpreted through the lens of some ontology borrowed from outside the Bible.” Defenders of the traditional understanding will immediately protest that Olson has ignored the revolutionary ways patristic and medieval theologians altered the pagan construal of divinity in the very process of appropriating Greek philosophical categories—to wit, the Christian assertion of the creatio ex nihilo and the Nicene formulation of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Olson’s article might lead one to conclude that once having identified God as Being (St Gregory Nazianzen, St Augustine, St Thomas Aquinas) or as beyond Being (Dionysius the Areopagite, St Maximus the Confessor, St Gregory Palamas), Christians ceased to preach the living God of the Scriptures and to pray to him for forgiveness and healing and every good gift. Curiously this did not happen.
Olson fears that the identification of God as Being inevitably leads to an impersonal realization of divinity:
One reason I resist thinking of God as Being Itself as opposed to a personal being is that it tends to undermine prayer except as meditation. It lends itself easily to the idea that “Prayer doesn’t change things; it changes me.” That is, it undermines petitionary prayer which Schleiermacher, understandably because of his philosophical influences, called “immature prayer.” If God is Being Itself, the Absolute, Unconditioned, then it would seem prayer cannot affect God. In fact, it would seem God cannot be affected by anything outside himself. My early Christian faith, which I have not entirely discarded (!), focused much on a “personal relationship with God.” God is someone, a being, who is other than I, and we stand vis-a-vis one another in what Buber and Brunner called an “I-Thou relationship.” Regarding God as Being Itself tends to lead away from relating to God as “Thou” with whom one can have a real, personal relationship.
This passage raised for me the following question: How does a classical theist like Aquinas, who confesses God as eternal, impassible, immutable, omnipotent, and omniscient, understand petitionary prayer? Does it make any sense to ask the Ipsum Esse Subsistens to heal my wife of her debilitating migraine headaches? I am insufficiently conversant with the writings of Aquinas to answer this question, but fortunately one of his 20th century students, Fr Herbert McCabe, addresses the subject of petitionary prayer in several of his essays.
God is not a being among beings. That’s precisely what the gods are—powerful beings within the universe that stand over against all other beings. Because they are distinct individuals with their own personal agendas, they may be petitioned, cajoled, persuaded, influenced, bribed, propitiated, placated, appeased, manipulated; and because they are powerful beings who can both do things for us that we cannot do for ourselves and do things to us against which we have no defense, petition and sacrifice are practical necessities for human survival and flourishing. But God, as transcendent Creator of all that is, cannot be such a god:
Why? Because gods are bits of the world or anyway bits of the universe. They stand alongside heroes and human beings and teacups, none of which are gods. Gods are different; they are a superior kind of being. The universe is divided into gods and non-gods as it is divided into sheep and non-sheep; the gods are items in the universe. Top items maybe, but still items. It is immediately apparent that whether the gods exist or not they cannot be the answer to why there is a universe at all, for they are part of the universe. Whatever is the answer to our question as put in the form ‘Why is there anything?’, it could not be one kind of thing in the universe or anything in the universe. In whatever way we understand the phrase ‘all of it’, God cannot be part of it. God cannot exist in the way that parts of the universe exist. He could not be an item in the universe. (God Still Matters, p. 56)
McCabe announces that the great Jewish discovery was the realization that the one God is the transcendent source of all that exists. Only this God is worthy of the worship and service of humanity. “The Creator is the reason why there is a universe with or without the gods in it,” he writes. “But if there are gods in it, it would be degrading for a human being to worship them” (p. 56). And for this reason, prayer within the Jewish, and therefore Christian, tradition “cannot mean petitioning a god. It cannot mean cajoling and persuading a god to be on your side” (p. 56).
It is at this point where the divide between classical theists and theistic personalists begins to emerge. Olson reads the biblical narrative and sees a conditioned, passible, dialogical divine being. Only such a God, he believes, is capable of entering into personal relationship with his creatures; only such a God is capable of making covenant and responding to the petitions of his people. McCabe would probably suggest that biblical theists like Olson are coming very close to reducing God to a god. If God has truly made the world from out of nothing, every moment sustaining it in existence by his omnipotent will, then he must not be pictured as standing alongside the realm of created beings. Olson would respond that biblical theists also affirm the one Creator, maker of heaven and earth, the critical difference being the seriousness with which they take the narrative rendering of deity. A plain reading of Scripture invites us, he believes, to construe divine sovereignty in relational terms. But how is this God not a god, even though there is only one of him? McCabe hammers home the implications of the Christian doctrine of creation:
The Jewish discovery that God is not a god but Creator is the discovery of absolute Mystery behind and underpinning reality. Those who share it (either in its Judaic or its Christian form) are not monotheists who have reduced the number of gods to one. They, we, have abolished the gods; there is only the Mystery sustaining all that is. The Mystery is unfathomable, but it is not remote as the gods are remote. The gods live somewhere else, on Olympus or above the starry sky. The Mystery is everywhere and always, in every grain of sand and every flash of colour, every hint of flavour in a wine, keeping all these things in existence every microsecond. We could not literally approach God or get nearer to God for God is already nearer to us than we are to ourselves. God is at the ultimate depth of our beings making us to be ourselves. (p. 59)
Though the biblical stories certainly appear to present God as a being among beings, they cannot be literally true. We must read them through our knowledge of him as transcendent Creator and infinite source of all being. As the Apostle Paul declared to the Athenians: “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all men life and breath and everything. … Yet he is not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’” (Acts 17:24-25, 27-28).
The radical transcendence of the Creator thus requires us to reconfigure and expand our understanding of prayer. The gods stand alongside us precisely as beings whom we may entreat and supplicate, just as we might a parent, friend, or king. They either accede to our requests or not, as they determine. But when god becomes God, then our understanding of prayer must change. “How then can we call upon God,” asks McCabe, “beseech Her, gain His attention, when our very cry for attention is made by God, more due to God than it is to ourselves, for it must be God that brings it about that I pray as it is God that brings it about that I draw my next breath?” (p. 59). The Creator does not only hear our prayers; he initiates them, causes them, and sustains them in being.
Prayer confronts us with the mystery of our creaturely existence and thus with the Mystery who is Prayer.